Adolechnics: Teens and Tech – Part 1
Just saying the word “cellular” makes me feel old. I’ve been reading some books for my grad class written in the late 90s/early 2000s and they constantly refer to cell phones as “cellular” or “mobile” phones. It hit me that the technology has become so pervasive that we no longer add any modifiers to them: they are simply just phones.
It’s hard now for me to remember a life before cell phones. I can remember as a child having an old-school rotary phone. As I’m reading books on how students around the world engage technology, it really hit me that my two-year-old son will never know a phone with wires. That’s crazy to me!
I share this because I think it really marks a generation gap between my generation and older, and the younger generations. One researcher named Todd Joseph Miles Holden refers to these younger generations as “adolechnics”: a generation of adolescents that are “inextricably linked to, and rooted in, technology.” He would posit (and I agree) that these youth do not simply adopt and adapt to technology, they grow up with and are immersed in it. Simply put, they don’t know a life without cell phones and high speed internet because that life has never existed for them.
My goal with this series is to look at a few technologies that are critical to the adolescent world to see how they view them. Often, we as adults tend to pass judgments on things based on how we view them instead of taking the time to see it through their eyes. I do want to start this series with a disclaimer: I believe that all the technologies that I will explore in this series are values neutral. Whether they are “good” or “bad” is based solely on how we use and consume them.
Isolating or Community Building?
One of the major debates around cell phone usage centers around its perceived isolating tendencies. Let’s be honest, we’ve all shook our heads disapprovingly at teenagers walking through stores or sitting in restaurants next to their families with their heads buried in their phones, seemingly oblivious to the world. “That can’t be good!” one might say. “They are cut off from the world!” Though I am not saying that texting during family dinners is a good practice, I would make the argument that at that moment, these students are MORE connected to the world than their parents are.
Though cell phones can appear to be isolating when we see groups of students sitting next to each other, texting instead of “talking” to each other, the truth is they are very inter-connected. The above mentioned researcher when studying technology use among adolescents in Japan points out:
Still, my observations suggest that despite the personalization and subjectivity implicated in adolescent cell phone use, the greatest energy is expended in ‘exteriorization’ – linkage with worlds outside: school, friends, activity groups and the larger worlds of commerce and popular culture. In this way, rather than encouraging inwardness, keitai (cell phone) use appears highly integrative. It connects users to others…)
Historically, the trend has been for Japanese adolescents to adopt technologies quicker and earlier than their western counterparts. As early as 2001, 81% of Japanese teenagers carried cell phones. Researchers there have been able to get the jump on studying the long-term affects of technology usage among teens. What they are finding is that texting, emailing, and social media are, in fact, extending community, not isolating teenagers.
Now, the question is “who are they connecting to?” It is true that cell phones can isolate students from adults such as parents, teachers, and mentors. Much of their connection through technology is peer-to-peer. So, why is that? I think part of the reason is the older generations have been slower to adopt the technology, therefore slower to join that community. The other part is the natural desire for independence that comes with adolescence.
Is it possible for parents to re-connect with their students through technology? I think yes…to a certain degree. We have to expect students to seek out independent frontiers, but at the same time students need healthy boundaries. Though they won’t admit it, they can put their phones down for family meals and other activities. They will survive.
A cell phone is a way for students to express their shifting and growing identity. Have you ever looked at a student’s phone? It is usually incredibly customized and setup just they way they like it. Tones are assigned. Apps are arranged just the way they like it. It is personal space; a world that they can decorate and somewhat control.
This is actually a good thing. Though technology can’t create identity, it can help a student safely (if done correctly) try things out. One of the primary jobs of the adolescent is identity formation. Cell phones give students access to a digital world where they can mold and experiment with this process.
There is, however, an inherent danger to this process that comes with the technology. Cyber bullying and sexting are examples of the dangers that occur when students are sifting through an unfiltered private world. Another danger is what I call “multiple-identity disorder.” This is something that I see far too often among churched students. They have their “real life identity” and their “digital identity”. Many students feel like it is ok to act and talk one way in person, while acting like a totally different person in their digital world. Though they know that Facebook and text messages are read by “real people” it is almost as if it is just a “pretend” world. This can lead to many dangerous activities.
I used the word “unfiltered” because many parents view the world that students can access through their smart phones and computers as their own private little world. Privacy, after all, is something that students should be guaranteed, right? Well, to some degree, yes. However, the digital world is NOT a private world. On the contrary it is the most public world that they know. Things said and done on Facebook can have long-lasting consequences. Students need help learning how to filter what they see, hear, do, and say. More on this subject in a later post.
I could write a book on the subject of cell phones and adolescents (maybe I should someday). In this post I just wanted to point a couple of ways that adults can misunderstand the use of cell phones among students. Remember, it is a values neutral technology. How students use it determines whether it is a positive or negative in their lives. We need to try to understand how they view it so that we can better help them use it for good.